What It's Like to Be a Hillary in the Year of Hillary Clinton
"Ohhhh I thought maybe I was picking up Hillary Clinton!" Every Uber driver I have ever had, without exception, has offered some variation on that joke when I climb into the backseat. At least it feels that way. I've developed a set of responses that depend on my mood — anything from a forced smile to a line about how I already live only five blocks from the White House. That's just the price of sharing a name with one of the most famous women in the world, I suppose.
Except that over the past 10 months, with Clinton's march toward the Democratic nomination barreling forward, I now hear my name in passing in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. It pops out at me from formerly unthreatening newsstands. It's in Gchats with other political writers and texts from my less-than-Clinton-fan father. Hillary, Hillary, Hillary.
The New York Times recently reported that the name Hillary — along with Donald and Bernie — has stayed stubbornly unpopular for babies this year. For reasons unknown (rampant unpopularity among 50 percent of voters?), my name just isn’t catching on among baby-making millennials right now. Which I must say is a blessing. To be saddled with the name of America's most beloved and most reviled woman has turned my life into an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" — one in which I imagine Larry losing his shit over the fact that he hears his name being bandied about with equal parts derision and pride everywhere he goes.
For most of our childhoods, my older sisters — Samantha and Meredith — and I rarely encountered other little girls with names like ours, even though the name Hillary hit its peak popularity in the mid-1980s, when I was a baby. But on the day Bill Clinton won the 1992 presidential election, when I was in second grade, my name slid out of relative obscurity and onto every TV screen. Adults ignorantly asked if I was named after the then-first lady, even though, duh, I was 7 and and my parents hadn’t predicted all those years ago that the wife of the governor of Arkansas would rise to the level of honorary naming. I began refusing headbands because Hillary wore them often during Bill's first term: I wanted independence from the famous lady on TV. (Also, headbands pinch.)
As I grew up and the Clintons receded from and then reemerged into public life, the bizarre pressure to comment on Hillary's choices and politics grew. For reasons I cannot understand, sharing a name with Hillary Clinton encourages strangers to reach into the bottom of the small-talk barrel and come up with questions that range from how I feel about the death of Ambassador Stevens in Libya, to whether or not she's "emotionally tough enough" to lead the free world, to if the Secretary and I ever met. (We have not, but if you're reading this Hillary, holler at me girl.) It's as if sharing two banal identifiers (name and gender) with Forbes' second most powerful woman in the world turns you into a screen onto which the world wants to project and watch their own judgments flicker. Because, let’s be honest, most people don't want to hear my opinion about her — they want to tell me theirs. And my name provides just the entrypoint they were looking for to blare their opinions. Somehow I don't think this happens to Georges and Ronalds and Joes.
The oddness of sharing a name with America’s most famous woman (sorry, Bey) was always amplified by the fact that famous political women — and especially first ladies — are somewhat sexistly referred to by their first names, while men apparently warrant enough respect to go by their last names. America long relished the domesticity of first ladies and just recently stopped relegating them to china selecting and limp charity work: to be a first lady is to be America’s Stepford mom. So Bill Clinton is Clinton, while Hillary Clinton is Hillary (a tic which I too have fallen victim to in my writing). And her name is just rare enough that when you encounter it elsewhere in public, the connection is immediate. Imagine meeting a 30-year-old woman named Zendaya: You know exactly whom you’d think of first.
It hasn't been all bad being a Hillary in the New Hillary Order. There is one unexpected bonus: all. that. monogrammed. gear. In 2008 I passed up the opportunity to buy an inky-hued poster with the words "Hillary Is the New Black" scrawled across it, and I’ve regretted it ever since. There are sweatshirts and enamel pins and coffee mugs and lawn signs. Occasionally it feels like half the world is cheering for me to have a better day with their #GoHillary hashtags and an overheard "Hillary was on fire today" comment from the nightly news.
And I'm not imagining the brain-numbing bizarreness of hearing and seeing my own name leap out at me all day from all angles. Numerous studies have confirmed that your own name draws your attention more readily than perhaps any other word in your native language. (That’s why while yelling “Mom!” in the grocery store doesn’t work, "Eleanor!" always does, at least in my case.) From birth our brains are taught to pick our names out from the jumble of other words or names. A 2006 study done by two researchers concluded that "a child under sedation responds selectively to the sound of her own first name." And another study conducted on five-month old babies determined that even at that young age babies are able to use their name "as a social cue." So, it's not as if I can easily ignore my own name as it leaps out from the CNN-tuned TV in my office lobby or casual conversations in line for my morning coffee — it's hard-wired in my brain.
But there’s also embarrassing miscommunication. At a former job at a politics-focused magazine, the entire editorial staff would gather every Thursday morning around the conference table for an hour to generate stories. Because I worked on the arts side of the magazine — and the conversation veered overwhelmingly towards politics—I admit that I occasionally tuned out the last 15 minutes of the bimonthly debate about Syrian intervention. But like clockwork, whenever I spaced out and began compiling a to-do list for the day, someone at the table would casually drop the question "What will Hillary do about this?" and my head would jerk up at a whiplash-inducing speed.
There's also the quirky stuff that’s only ramped up since Hillary announced her presidential bid last year. Like many journalists, I have a Google Alert set for my own name as a method of tracking responses to my work. Except it also sends me a notice every single time Megyn Kelly comments on Hillary Clinton (Hint: That's a lot) and every single derivative of a Hillary Clinton story that also uses the name "Kelly" in it. At the least the emails from the Clinton campaign bearing the subject line "Hillary needs you, Hillary" make me giggle.
Because there's always the hate. Pouring from the mouths and fingers of the populace. Scrawled across neon poster board in thick black magic marker. Condensed onto cheap, bubbling bumper stickers. Beneath poorly Photoshopped snaps of Hillary in her First Lady days. My name is connected to memes of Monica Lewinsky that declare "I will not be voting for Hillary in 2016. The last Clinton presidency left a very bad taste in my mouth." A quick search through Etsy for monogrammed vintage goodies turned up a festival of misogyny. My name, and in a sense my identity, has become inextricably tied to some of the saddest and ugliest rancor our culture has produced.
For that reason, perhaps I pity the Donalds most of all.
Get to know Hillary Clinton by watching her exclusive MAKERS story in the video player above.
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